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Charlotte Named North Carolina’s Political Money Center, But “Color Of Money” Shows Need For Campaign Reform

Raleigh may be the seat of state government and headquarters for the major political parties, but Charlotte is the real political money capital of North Carolina, according to a new study by Democracy South, a campaign finance watchdog group based in Chapel Hill.

The group released its report at a Charlotte press conference, where the Rev. Waddell Henderson and other community leaders announced plans for a public forum next week, featuring state candidates debating campaign finance reforms.

The event will take place Tuesday evening, July 25, at the Uptown Main Library. Sponsors include the local League of Women Voters, Mecklenburg Voter Coalition, and the political science departments of Johnson C. Smith University and UNC at Charlotte.

According to Democracy South’s study, Charlotte donors gave $2.3 million to state candidates and political committees in the last election cycle, surpassing the $2.1 million from Raleigh contributors. That means Charlotte, which has 7 percent of the state’s people, supplied 12 percent of the $18.6 million that North Carolinian donated for non-federal, state-level politics during 1997-1998.

Most of the Charlotte donors live in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods, according to a zip-code analysis by Democracy South. The group found that:

  • The two zip codes that gave the most money from Charlotte are 93 percent white – they encompass the Myers Park, Cotswold, Foxcroft and Landsdown areas (28211 and 28207). The two zip codes giving the least political money (28206 and 28208) are the poorest two in the city and are 71 percent African American and other people of color.
  • Together, the two top-donating zip codes gave $910,000 – 40 percent of all the identifiable donations from Charlotte and 180 times the $5,072 given by the poorest two zips.
  • The three zip codes with the highest percentage of people of color (28206, 28216 and 28273) donated about 50 cents for each of their residents, while the three whitest zip codes (28217, 28207 and 28226), with more than twice the per-capita income, gave $12 per resident.

More than one third of all the Charlotte donations to state-level politics during 1997-1998 went to political action committees (PACs), which in turn gave the money to selected candidates.

For example, Charlotte is the home of four of the seven largest corporate-sponsored PACs in North Carolina: Duke Energy, Bank of America, BellSouth, and First Union. Their donations have considerable clout in state politics. In fact, half of the current members of the General Assembly count one or more of Charlotte’s Big Four PACs among their top ten donors, the study says.

The profile of money givers raises serious concerns about how democracy functions in North Carolina, says Maurice Cottom, a Johnson C. Smith student who is part of the Charlotte Democracy Summer Project, an educational program sponsored by Democracy South.

“In today’s cash-driven politics, donors can decide which candidate is viable and can get special access to the winners,” Cottom said. “Instead of ‘one person, one vote,’ we have a democracy shaped by who gives the money. Dollars, not voters, have become the ticket to success, and that hurts those left out, especially the non-white and non-wealthy.”

His concerns were echoed by Nelson Rivers III, director of national field operations for the NAACP. “Since African Americans have decidedly less income, we’re at a disadvantage when money is the deciding factor in whether you can participate as a candidate, as a voter, or as a constituent,” he said.

A national survey by the Joyce Foundation found that 95 percent of the donors giving $200 or more to a federal candidate are white, 81 percent are male, and 81 percent had annual incomes exceeding $100,000.

In the last election in North Carolina, a mere 200 individuals from Charlotte gave $1.13 million, or 50 percent of all the money coming from Charlotte donors giving over $100, according to Democracy South. Two-tenths of one percent of Charlotte’s population – 1,030 people or 2 out of each 1000 in the city – invested $500 or more in state politics, for a total of $1.9 million or 83 percent of the money traceable to the city.

“Serious reform is needed to free candidates from a dependency on a small circle of wealthy donors and to ensure that elections are controlled by voters,” said Megan Craig of the Charlotte Democracy Summer Project. “Clearly we need a different way to finance campaigns if we want everyone’s voice to be heard in a democracy.”

The Project’s staff have worked in Charlotte for the past two months, speaking to various organizations, conducting research, and planning Tuesday’s forum on campaign finance reform.

The forum features state candidates and experts presenting the arguments “for” and “against” such reforms as stricter disclosure rules, regulation of soft money, and a public financing alternative for candidates who voluntarily agree to strict spending and fundraising limits.

Panelists at the event – which begins at 6 p.m. on Tuesday – include state Rep. Beverly Earle of Charlotte; Barbara Howe, Libertarian candidate for governor; and David Moskowitz of UNC-Charlotte’s political science department. The event will be moderated by Tawana Wilson Allen of the Mecklenburg Voter Coalition.